(Reposted from The Deconversion Desert, which is migrating to the new Deconversion Oasis. To view previous threaded comments, you may visit The Deconversion Desert, but any new comments should be posted here.)
In a recent critical review of my book, reader Karsten Klien correctly observes that most of my arguments against Christianity have been well known for a long time and that many intelligent Christians have maintained their faith despite these challenges. I responded by asking him for his take on one of the problems I find most troubling for Christianity: Jesus’ failure to return in the generation of his contemporaries as he promised. The solution he prefers is that Jesus provided clues in his Olivet Discourse that he would return only after there were believers to be gathered from the ends of the earth, which Karsten takes to mean in a future generation, since presumably there wasn’t even time for the gospel to have spread that far in the first generation. I was intrigued by this explanation since I hadn’t previously considered it, and I appreciate his bringing it to my attention.
Since I’ve already taken the time to respond to Karsten’s Amazon review, I’ve decided to kill two birds with one stone and turn my response into my blog post for this week. For anyone who wishes to respond, I would ask that you be respectful of Karsten, whom I find to be engaging and respectful himself. It may be best to comment directly on Amazon if you have a question for him. If you’re a believer (or even an unbeliever) and you have an alternate explanation for the problem of Jesus’ return, preferably an explanation I did not discuss to your satisfaction in my chapter on prophecies
in my book, then I would be glad to hear your take on this problem.
Without further ado, here’s our Amazon exchange regarding the timing of Jesus’ return:
You were correct when you asserted that certain Christians misuse the word for “race.” Many people want easy “quick fixes.” As to possible valid solutions, there have been many explanations of this passage, from the Lewis one you quoted, to double fulfillment, to dispensational takes on it, to various others. After all this is a question that Christians have had to deal with for over 2000 years. So there are few options that could be plausible.
But the that makes the most sense to me is that Jesus is certainly speaking of all future events that have not occurred. The context of the passage is in global terms, so it appears difficult to assume that in a short amount of time there would be believers “from the ends of the earth”(Mk 13:24-27). Jesus appears to be speaking of a future time, and that the generation alive at that time will not be completely wiped out, but will see Christ return.
That’s an interesting take on the issue. However, by the time Mark was written, the gospel had already been taken to “the ends of the earth.” For first century Christians, this did not include Australia or the Americas; it corresponded to the world with which they were familiar, centered in the Mediterranean and spreading out nebulously from there. It apparently included parts as far east as India, where tradition maintains that the Apostle Thomas brought the gospel around A.D. 52, well before the passing of that first generation. Most scholars date all four Gospels (including Mark) after the lifetime of Paul, who preached in Rome and, according to tradition, as far west as Spain, representing the westernmost “end” of the earth to those living in the first century. So no, Jesus (or the author of Mark who penned the Olivet Discourse) wasn’t speaking of a far-future state of affairs. Furthermore, the discourse was directed to the disciples (witness the multiple references to “you”) who had asked Jesus when the end would come. If Jesus knew he was speaking of a generation not yet living, then why did he address all his remarks to his disciples as “you”–the ones who, after all, had asked about the timing of all this–with every indication it was for their consumption, not for ours 20 centuries removed?
But I fear the discussion of this one passage is getting away from the bigger New Testament picture. Do you maintain that when Paul wrote, “we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air,” (1 Thess. 4:17) he did not believe he was going to be among those still alive at Jesus’ return? Or that when Paul stated in 1 Cor. 7:29 that the “time is short” and advised his readers to live as though the end was at hand, he didn’t really think the end was at hand? Do you maintain that the author of 1 John 1:18 believed “the end” to be in a future generation: “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour”? Or that when Jesus pronounced that “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:27-28), he had a future generation in mind? Or that when he said to his disciples in Matthew 10:23, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes,” he meant that there would still be towns in Israel to go through in the year 2012? If God inspired the New Testament writers, and he knew that Jesus was not going to return in the generation then living, is the reference to “the ends of the earth” (and the 1 Peter passage you quoted, which I’ll come to momentarily) the best he could have done to make it clear he wasn’t in fact going to return in that generation, as all the above passages suggest? I see this as an illustration of the principle I alluded to in an earlier comment: the smartest committed believers (among whom I’ll count you) are the best equipped for devising ingenious solutions to the challenges to their faith. But we have to stop and ask ourselves: is this what the text is really pointing to, or is it just a way to sidestep the weight of the problem?
Regardless of if this explanation satisfies you, (I’m quite sure it won’t), I think the key for this is that the disciples were certainly not confused or thrown back by his so-called fail to return. They did not appear to understand it as having to occur in their lifetime. As is quoted in 1Peter, ‘With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’
The problem with this passage (2 Peter 3:8) is that it can be used to make language mean nothing. You lamented in your last comment that postmodernism seems to be reigning, which I take to mean that truth is relative. What finer example of relativism is there than this passage? When it appeared that Jesus’ promise to return in that generation failed, then it was time to reassess. Here’s a thought: remove all meaning from time, then what do you know, the problem is gone! Never mind Jesus’ references to “this generation,” or his “some who are standing here will not taste death until,” or Paul’s “we who are alive,” or John’s “this is the last hour,” or every other passage that speaks to the imminence of Jesus’ return; it can all be swept under the rug with one all-encompassing redefinition of time itself. The author of 2 Peter (which critical scholars unanimously hold to be pseudonymous, written after the real Peter’s death) was another example of a smart, committed believer who knew very well how to bring reason into the service of his prior commitments. How smart was he? Smart enough to convince even postmodern-eschewing believers of the twentieth-first century that Jesus’ failure to return in the first century as promised is not a problem for the Christian faith.
I’ll close with a general observation that those who purport to foretell future events almost always have in mind a fulfillment in their own lifetime. Take Harold Camping’s prediction that Jesus would return on May 21, 2011. Are we to suppose that his advancing age had nothing to do with his choice of 2011 rather than, say, 2100? Is it a coincidence that Hal Linsey is convinced Jesus will return in his generation? Or that William Miller predicted Jesus’ return in 1844, when Miller happened to be living? Or that the New Testament writers believed they were living in the generation of the parousia? (Even the author of 2 Peter, who used the day-is-a-thousand-years argument, goes on in 2 Peter 2 to warn his readers of Jesus’ impending return.) I’m not saying that no one has ever prophesied about events specified to take place after the death of the seer, but surely it must be a very rare exception. After all, of what benefit is it to the seer if the fulfillment is going to take place after he’s dead? This being the case, should it surprise us that the very human New Testament Christians believed they were part of the end times?